28 April 2010


This is really troubling. It turns out that Iris Murdoch was besotted with Raymond Queneau. In the letter quoted, she says
Anything I shall ever write will owe so much, so much, to you ... As I think more about literature [...] I realise more and more how crucial for me is everything you write. [...] I would do anything for you, be anything you wished me, come to you at any time or place [but] you don't need me in the way in which I need you.

(I've included the extracts as given in the Guardian. It's not made clear if she wrote in English or French, though. The French versions in Le Monde could be the originals.)

I haven't read much Murdoch, to be fair, but the reason I didn't read more is precisely because what I did read seemed to lack the qualities that attract me in Queneau's writing: playfulness, verbal invention, an engagement with current idiomatic speech. Maybe she saw in him the things her writing lacked. So this is like finding that Andrew Lloyd Webber was a passionate fan of Stockhausen.

The article in Le Monde suggests that the guardians of the Murdoch temple might now wish to reread her work, to trace the influence of Queneau in it. Good luck to them, if they do. I won't.

27 April 2010


As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

A randomly chosen poem by Hopkins, but can we call it modernist, in the way I was talking about in relation to Rilke?

Who is speaking here? Who says "I say more"? I think that in this poem Hopkins is unproblematically adopting a persona of poet. The poet's observations and opinions have a special value because they are the poet's. Poetry had established this as a legitimate stance. With Hopkins, moreover, you get a very individual diction; the poetry creates the poet. So perhaps there is the relationship with form. The verbal dexterity of Hopkins certifies him as a poet, and gives him that credibility.

Is this actually so different from Rilke, in fact? In his poems, at least as far as I can tell with the peculiar translations I have, he's depending on this assumed status and prestige. He's much less formal, but in a passage like this, you can see, even without understanding it, linguistic dexterity:

Wer zeigt ein Kind, so wie es steht? Wer stellt
er ins Gestirn und gibt der Mass des Abstands
ihm in die Hand? wer macht den Kindertod
aus grauem Brot, das hart wird ...

The most obvious trick there is the repetition of "wer", but there's a melody running through the language too. Like Hopkins, Rilke earns bardic respect from his way with words. Do modernist poets forgo this certification?

I'll come back to that, but also need to think about poems written in character, whether that be Browning or Pessoa.

26 April 2010


My German isn't good enough to read Rilke's Duino Elegies, and probably never will be, but can I rope his poetry into the investigation I seem to be making into a modernist poetics? I've now read Martyn Crucefix's translation, and although I have problems with it, which I'll come back to, there's enough here to suggest that Rilke's work provides some of the same challenges that we see in other modernist poetry.

To over-simplify, the big question in modernist poetry seems to be that of Roland Barthes, in S/Z, "who is speaking here?" The Elegies begin with a bold first-person question:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
Of the angels?

And, to be honest, I'm already damaging my own proposition, because the voice throughout the Elegies seems to remain consistent. But maybe it's a more subtle anonymity: the poetic voice gives away so little of its speaker's past, we don't know what is the occasion for these elegies.

There's another anonymity, in that the poet addresses a "you":

Yes - the springtimes needed you. There were stars
waiting to be seen by you. A wave rolled
to your feet in the past, or as you strode
beneath half-shuttered windows, the bowed violin
leant itself to you. All this was your mission.

It's not obvious if this "you" remains the same during the elegies, or what the relationship between the poet and this character is.

So, what might be happening is that one of the characteristics of modernist poetry is the refusal to accept a privileged role for the poet, whose voice is one of many. Pessoa embodied this in the use of heteronyms, Pound by his whole method. And this kind of distinction is much more important than the formal concern (all these poets used what we could inadequately call free verse.)

But there ought to be a relationship between verse form and authority. Does the use of metre and rhyme in itself claim for the poet's voice a structuring authority that modernism refuses? That's a potential line of enquiry.

As for the translation, it's curiously prosaic. Rilke's German of course uses compounds which are hard to transfer into English, and so the lines get longer, and Crucefix's version actually have more lines than the original. Which I think is unusual.

10 April 2010


One of the embarrassing gaps in my reading history - how did I get through my degree without reading this? Now that I have done, in Seamus Heaney's translation, I know how.

The thing is, Beowulf doesn't have much to do with English literature. It's so much more remote than Gawain, for example. It's partly the language, of course. In this version, the first page is given in parallel Anglo-Saxon and English, and even so, it's hard to see which word is which. Then there's the subject matter. The story is set in Denmark, and so it appears to be largely nostalgic. The tale is longer than I expected, and Grendel and his mum are killed off fairly early. Beowulf then returns to his homeland, becomes king and rules wisely and well for 50 years, before the third battle of the poem, a fatal encounter with a dragon. After that, the decline of the kingdom is presaged, a decline that has been evident in the fatalistic musings of the aging Beowulf. These are the best bits of the poem: the descriptions of the king facing his mortality are universal and moving.

Earlier, the poem shows signs of an oral culture. Each battle is described twice, first in the poet's voice, then in quotation from a witness/participant. The repetition would be appropriate for a listening audience, of course, but it also shows a diffidence, perhaps, about the role as author. The author isn't entirely trusted to know and tell everything, he has to adduce evidence. In a few places, the poet refers to himself explicitly, saying things like "someone told me this".

So the poem, for all its qualities, feels a lot like the end of a tradition, not the start of a new one. Sadly, it's less relevant to English literature than Homer, for example.

As for the translation, it seems a bit sluggish. It doesn't have the energy of Armitage's Gawain, perhaps, I'd venture, because there's not the shared dna of language that Armitage exploited. I suspect that might be part of the reason the final sections stand up so strongly - their mood is a better match with Heaney's verse.

This all sounds very negative, and shouldn't. It is a very fine poem, and of course I should have read it before now. I'm not going to learn Anglo-Saxon but I will look for other translations.